Six Foot Track - Race Report

by Chris Smith (1996)

"Winners don't quit, quitters don't win".

Just sixty miles to the west of the busy streets of Australia's largest city - Sydney, lies the distinctive topography of the BMNP (Blue Mountains National Park). This area of rugged sandstone plateaux fringed by 1000ft cliffs and dense eucalyptus forest proved a formidable barrier to the westward migration of the early Australian colonists. It took twenty-five years of tenacious exploring before Wentworth, Blaxland and Lawson finally discovered a way across in the late 19th century. One of the trees marking the route discovered by the trio is now preserved as a historic monument known as the Explorers Tree. It is from this tree each year that the entrants in the Six Foot Track Marathon begin their forty-six kilometre journey to the finish at Jenolan Caves.

The Six Foot Track is one of the best known of the long walks within the BMNP. Following the route of a 19th Century bridle path, it passes through rainforest glens, across rivers and up some steep mountain ridges before dropping steeply over the last kilometres to end at the resort of Jenolan, famous for its extensive system of caves. The caves are illuminated and open to guided tours making them a drawcard for Sydney tourists. Bushwalkers, as hikers are known in Australia, normally take three days to complete the walk. The 6FTM record by contrast is currently slightly under three and a half hours.

As an off-beat marathon, the Six Foot Track has a lot of appeal and this is reflected in the increasing numbers of competitors each year. This as other marathons see ever declining numbers. Although you would swear it was mostly uphill, the course actually drops nearly 1000ft from start to finish., the scenery is spectacular and as it is only just over the standard marathon distance it attracts the non-ultra types or Fun Runners as they are called in Australia.

Arriving at the Explorers Tree for my first 6FTM I felt none of the usual pre-race tension I feel for shorter races. My only goal was to finish within the seven hour cut-off, and without doing too much damage to myself in the process. My companions on the drive from Sydney - DeadRoo Kevin Tiller and fellow Sydney Strider Phil Hugill - had done their best to impart gravity to the occasion of my fist ultra through the graphic recounting of tales of runners who had suffered muscle seizure during the race. Both Kevin and Phil have numerous ultras under their belt and Kevin's wife Dawn is the current female 6FTM record holder. I got the impression from their faintly derisive comments about Fun-Runners doing the Six Foot that I had committed myself to a more serious undertaking than planned when I sent in my entry form.

There was plenty of company at the start. Numbers were up this year to almost four hundred, all milling around the start showing varying degrees of nervousness. In the best tradition of the Australian bush, a breakfast of tea and damper with syrup was served by the race organisers. I declined, sticking to my race plan having breakfast consisting of a squeezy and water twenty minutes into the run. I saw two people dressed in pantomime horse outfits hamming it up to the tannoy music blaring Rawhide. On taking a second look I saw they had numbers on. It would be pretty embarrassing to be overtaken by them! I found out afterwards that the race sweepers traditionally dress up as horses and carry a broom. I would only be overtaken by the horses if my pace dropped below the seven hour cut-off.

Unlike the typical urban race, the forest provided plenty of cover for the pre-race toilet stop. No need to worry about queuing for the porta-loos. This business taken care of it was time to line up under the start banner. I knew from Mr Tiller who was doing his sixth 6FTM today, that the first kilometres were straight down 400m via a narrow staircase on which no-one could pass. The trick was to position yourself so that you were neither impeded by slower runners or forced into oxygen debt early in the race. I took what turned out to be a too conservative option and lined up about five rows back in the rather narrow starting area.

The gun went off promptly at nine o'clock. I was glad I wasn't on the front line, these runners took off as if was a hundred metre dash. I concentrated on making sure that I didn't trip, either on the shoes of the runners beside me or the rocky trail. We were soon descending the stairs of Neates Glen. The pace was a very slow walk and with the splendid views and the many voices echoing up from runners in the canyon below and above it wasn't really like a race at all. A lady behind me suddenly clutched her leg, two other runners coming quickly to her side to help. I wonder if she'll recover and finish? It takes almost 15 minutes to get to the bottom of the Glen, the runners are still arranged in Indian file on the narrow path but are now starting to spread out. I am running on the heels of the runner in front but I have already lost sight of those behind. Eventually the path levels out and widens into a dirt road. I am feeling pretty fresh, as I should after running three kilometres in 20 minutes, and so pick up the pace. Not too quickly as there is still a long way to go but I must have got pretty stuck in the Glen as I pass people continuously for the next ten kilometres. As I pass a Rockport sponsored runner I ask how he finds his shoes. He grunts in reply, guess he's not having a very good day. I finally catch up to group who are going at my pace. I ask one of the runners, a master, what sort of time he is looking for, 'somewhere around four hours' he replies and adds that he has recently run a sub 2:30 marathon. I think that he's already lost any chance of four hours but don't say so, we talk about his job which kept him up until late the previous night, not ideal preparation for a race as tough as this one. I stay with this group for the next 6 k. The track becomes rockier and I catch my feet a number of times and only just manage to avoid kissing the ground each time. The runner behind me moves in front, I think he feels safer there. After following the high left bank of the Cox's river for three k the path drops steeply and opens up once again into a wide grassy field leading to a ford. One of the strategic decisions that must be made while running the 6FT is whether to take your shoes off to wade across the river. Some argue that the time lost in removing shoes and socks is worthwhile to obtain the benefit of dry footwear. Others had told me that your feet soon dry out anyway and that you just have to watch out for small stones getting in your shoes.

As we got within a few yards of the river I decided to follow my companions and plough on with shoes in place. The four ahead of me ran into the water on a sandbank where it got no deeper than their thighs. I thought it looked faster to their right and was shocked to find myself immersed to chest level within a few strides. Being an experienced triathlete and feeling rather hot I dived under and swam the rest of the way across. This was turning into my first aquathlon for the year -- 10 mile run 10 yard swim 20 mile run. Despite running fairly hard from the bottom of the glen I had reached the Cox River, the ten mile mark of the race, in eighty minutes. It was going to be a long day.

Across the river was where the cognescenti say the race starts. The group I had been with for the last six kilometers before the river quickly broke up as the incline of the track now exceeded 10 percent. The next three kilometers are all up, straight up, climbing nearly 1500 feet. On the steeper sections I break into a power-walk hands on thighs in an attempt to save some glycogen. It's so steep that I pass people who are attempting to run in a sort of slow motion action. Despite the severity of the climb, the views are superb and as the track winds its way to the top in a series of switches, and you can never see more than a few hundred metres ahead, its not that hard psychologically. Towards the top the track comes out in the open through some fields with cows and horses in and where can see the top of the climb for the first time. Oh dear, still quite a way to go.

Before the top its back into the cover of the trees again, the drop in temperature pleasant as the day gets hotter. The next few kilometers wind pleasantly down to, alongside, and then across Little river a tributary of the earlier crossed Coxs. The scenery here is very English, a babbling brook running through a verdant pasture replete with deserted farmhouse. It is a perfect spot for a for an indulgent lunch and I envy the aid station volunteers here, who have their barbeque warming up to cook sausages, steak and other tempting morsels. We racers have to make do with some sports drink.

The path narrows again and crosses Little river three times in quick succession. Those who kept their feet dry crossing Cox's needn't have bothered. After the third time across the slippery rocks, yet cold and refreshing water, it is time for the second climb of the day. This time its longer and steeper than the first and then at the top instead of dropping downhill it rises gradually for another six miles. I start power-walking earlier this time. The first signs of glycogen depletion - a slight pain across the outside of both quadriceps muscle - are a warning that I am already fatigued and will have to slow down just to finish. The climb to the pluviometer where the trail flattens out seems to take forever, the difficulty exacerbated toward the top where the surface changes from compacted dirt to rocks. Just before the pluviometer I go past a heavy breathing Kevin Tiller who is looking a little toasted from the long climb. Finally I reach the pluviometer aid station. The pluviometer itself is a little off the track so I never got to actually see it. Next time perhaps.

Around the next corner from the pluviometer aid station the trail starts to climb again. I not prepared for this unpleasant surprise, having expected the slow rise to the road to be much more gradual. In reality it is a series of short steep sections separated by flats, rather like a long staircase. Since passing Mr Tiller I have been running by myself. I can't see anyone ahead or behind and I have 10 k more of hard running along the most scenically challenging part of the course. I lose motivation and started walk/running. Despite my slow progress no-one passes me and just before coming out of the forest onto the road I actually pass two runners.

Only nine k left now, four along the road and then back into the bush for last five. There are two more long gradual climbs on the road that reduce me to walking again. Lots of runners have suddenly appeared - where from? -- and several go past me. I don't react, my only objective now is to finish. My right calf muscle begins to cramp at the top of the second rise and I have to stop and stretch it. It's good to get out of the glare of the sun when the track goes back into the bush. It's now afternoon and getting hot. A few more short sharp rises and then the trail plunges steeply downwards toward the finish. It's so steep and rocky and my legs so sore that it's more of a hobble than a final surge. The runner in front of me suddenly falls to the ground clutching his leg. His calf has locked and won't let go. I grab his foot and help him release the cramp and he is back on his feet heading for the finish faster than me. The last few hundred meters are easier in pitch and on a concreted pathway. I take my time, both by necessity and to savour the moment, it always surprises me how strong the feeling of elation is after long and hard races.

The next few hours after the race are spent quaffing cool lagers in the outside bar opposite the finishing line. There is a loud band, which together with the effects of post-run euphoria and more than a little alcohol produces an impromptu party atmosphere that is savoured both in vertical and horizontal attitudes. Even those prostrated by their efforts have smiles on their faces. The published cut-offs are not enforced and there are still runners coming across the line 7 and half hours after the gun each to successively louder roars from the intoxicated spectators.

What a run, what a day.